By Kimberly Jones | Published July 20, 2015
On Friday evening in late June, at a charity softball game in Pomona, New York, the celebrities are mostly New York Giants, current players and former ones. Joe Gannascoli, a.k.a. Vito from "The Sopranos," is here, too. But given the scores of No. 13 jerseys at Provident Bank Park, the headliner is clearly Odell Beckham Jr.
He doesn't disappoint.
Killing time between the home run derby and the game, Beckham steps atop the pitcher's mound, a glove on his left hand, a softball in his right, and lets fly with some overhand heat. Beckham's mechanics -- the way he lifts his stride leg, his body control, his throwing motion -- are clean. He generates power effortlessly. The troublesome left hamstring that led the Giants to shelve Beckham for the last few weeks of football practices this spring isn't a problem on this night. The ball pops as it reaches the catcher, who barely has to move. It's so ... smooth.
"The sickest athlete I have ever seen!" says punter Steve Weatherford, himself a fitness nut with 12-pack abs, in an Instagram post documenting the moment. Cornerback Prince Amukamara tweets: "And he can pitch!!! Who throws a softball 90 mph!??"
We can't say for sure that the pitch hit 90, but you get the idea. So we ask: If Beckham's teammates are still awed and amazed by his athletic exploits, how are the rest of us supposed to react?
The hands, the hair, the how-did-he-do-that catches -- it seems to come so easily to Beckham. But back in early November, thanks to a strained right hamstring that cost him almost all of training camp and the first four regular-season games of his first pro season, he had a lot of catching up to do.
Sensing that Beckham could handle it, Giants wide receivers coach Sean Ryan turned up the pressure by introducing a weekly ritual: On Fridays, he would give Beckham a sheet of rookie receiver rankings, by catches, yards and touchdowns. On the initial list, Beckham's production ranked last.
"I think he thrives on challenges," Ryan said. "I think that is what makes that guy tick."
In Week 5, Beckham announced his arrival, catching a touchdown in his first game, on a route he had never before run.
In Week 10, he burned Richard Sherman and Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary for 100-plus receiving yards -- something only two other receivers accomplished all season.
In Week 12, a bending-backwards Beckham made the (one-handed) catch of the year.
And then there was December, when the Giants won three of their last four games and Beckham's productivity reached hard-to-believe levels: He racked up 606 receiving yards -- representing 53.6 percent of Eli Manning's total yardage that month -- and made 43 catches while being targeted a ridiculous 63 times. He also caught seven of Manning's eight touchdown passes.
By season's end, if Beckham wasn't quite a one-man show, his name surely was on the marquee.
Looking back months later, coach Tom Coughlin, hardly one for hyperbole, assessed Beckham's rookie campaign: "I think he's just touching the surface here."
He would go on to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and rank No. 32 on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2015," which is voted on by the players. As part of the greatest rookie class of receivers ever, Beckham led the way with 91 catches, 1,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, ranking among the top 10 overall in each category. That he produced such statistics despite missing September? Remarkable enough to make you wonder, How good can he be?
Beckham's answer: "It's not like I want to be (able to say), 'I'm better than you.' I just genuinely want to be the best."
The Pro Bowl in late January served as Beckham's final game. Hours before kickoff, as other players milled around the field, Beckham booted a 46-yard field goal through the uprights. Giants players had seen this act many times at practice, but this was a bigger stage with a new audience. Colts punter Pat McAfee captured the kick on his camera phone.
A short time later, the Seahawks Pro Bowlers arrived on the sidelines. Told of Beckham's field goal, safety Kam Chancellor raised his eyebrows and asked, "Is there anything he can't do?"